The personal essay and Mormonism go way back. Joseph Smith wasn’t much of a writer, but he took every opportunity to dictate his life story to his scribes. More often than not, these dictations were rather mundane and clerically impersonal, revealing a life spent in meetings and councils and conferences. Occasionally, he would strike an anecdotal note, particularly when he wanted to set the record straight on his story. He would then narrate fantastic events and give them meaning. He would endow a common grove of trees with light or a brilliant meteor shower with apocalyptic grandeur.
At these times, Joseph Smith wore the hat of a personal essayist—and he wore it well.
Stephen Carter carries on this tradition with What of the Night? (Zarahemla Books, 2010), a rare collection of personal essays about Mormons by a Mormon—mostly for Mormons. Many Mormon readers already know Carter’s work, of course, from Sunstone magazine, that bastion of alternative Mormon thought that Carter has edited since 2008. Most of the essays in What of the Night?, in fact, first appeared in Sunstone or its bastion-brother Dialogue, which is not surprising considering the alternative Mormon story they tell.
Or seek to tell. Like Joseph Smith, Carter finds meaning everywhere—in the dead husk of a gutted fish, in the smoke circles of his brother’s cigarette habit, in the solid aftermath of a digested habanera—yet the conclusions he draws from these meanings are never as cocksure and conclusive as the Prophet’s. Joseph Smith wrote with a certainty that bordered for many of his contemporaries on righteous arrogance. Carter writes in an opposite vein, however: a kind of doubt fueled by wicked humility. Here, for example, is his take on the Priesthood and the weight it carries:
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have this weight. Sometimes I wish I could drop it: the power, the responsibility, the tradition, the expectations. I wish I could cut all the ropes and just fly for a little while, scope out the scenery and choose a nice place to visit. Sometimes I envy the people who can leave the Mormon church, who can forget about their priesthood, who can find a new tradition that suits them better, or create their own. What would happen if I didn’t have to wrestle this angel anymore? (Kindle Location 462)
Honest admissions like this are scattered throughout What of the Night? They give the collection a vulnerable voice that is all but absent from the writing in mainstream Mormon publications. In essays like “The Weight of Priesthood,” where the above quotation comes from, and “The Calling,” an account of Carter’s last month in the mission field, this vulnerability seems particularly gutsy because it exposes the often unspoken chinks in the armor of Mormon masculinity. Carter, in a sense, presents himself as a Thayeresque hero. Burdened with the legacy of Mormonism, awed and alarmed by the responsibility of manhood and priesthood, he struggles to reconcile the real of his experience with the ideal of his religious education. Like Harris Thatcher, the protagonist of The Tree House, he feels the vague presence of truth constantly, but never succeeds in holding it in his hand for very long. As he notes in “Writing as Repentance,” the last essay in the collection, this constant—sometimes futile—grasping for truth has placed him in the relatively unexplored canyon between the mountains of Mormon and anti-Mormon orthodoxy.
Despite its honesty, however, I felt that What of the Night? was missing something. In his essay about the priesthood, for example, Carter has much to say about his early experiences with the Priesthood, yet becomes vague when he describes his post-mission shift from orthodox belief to doubt. “Doubting is a difficult business in Mormonism,” he writes, “especially if you were raised in the church.” This is true, of course, but Carter largely leaves you to take his word for it. What is missing, in a sense, is the narrative of Carter’s own descent down the mountain of orthodox Mormon belief. As readers, we know that Carter doubts, but we never get the specifics of why. What happened in the “five years after [his] mission” that led him to doubt? What doctrines or ideas troubled him the most? What were the effects of this changes on those he cared most about? Detail are surprisingly few, especially considering the standard transparencyof the personal essay genre.
Lacking as well are other, less personal details. While I enjoyed his essays on Eugene England, I felt that they needed to supply more background on England himself, especially since the pre-Bloggernacle England and his legacy are becoming increasingly more distant as the years pass. Moreover, I felt that the collection was altogether too short. Carter is a fantastic writer who has a keen understanding of the American Mormon mind and culture. By the time I finished What of the Night?, I was ready for more.
Which is to say: What of the Night?, despite its unfortunate omissions, is worth your time. In fact, it is worth more time than it actually demands from its readers. It is, after all, a fairly quick read.
Finally—and I invoke the language of testimony—I would be ungrateful if I did not mention “The Departed,” the essay from the collection that resonated most with me. It is not, to be sure, the best essay in the collection—that would be “The Calling”—but it is the essay that speaks of what I value most in Mormonism outside of my own personal commitment to its doctrines and teachings: the Mormon artist. In this essay, the Artist is Mormon filmmaker Richard Dutcher, but Dutcher functions for Carter (and the reader) more as a symbol for Mormon creative potential in the essay than as a living, breathing artist. As Carter observes, Dutcher stands apart from his contemporary Mormon filmmakers—the Hesses, Ryan Little, Neil LaBute—because he “took Mormonism seriously in all its peculiarity, in all its promise, in all its paradox,” yet was met with a deaf ear by the Mormon community. Carter asks:
What can you do when a huge part of your community can’t or won’t hear the unique voice you’ve cultivated? What do you do when parts of your community condemn you for exercising your talents? What do you do when your community ignores or reviles the stories that nourish you? (Kindle Location 947)
As usual, Carter doesn’t give us the pleasing answer. The title of the essay—“The Departed”—references a kind of historical exodus of Mormon artist away from the community that nurtured them—a perpetual Lost Generation that includes not only Dutcher, but also poet May Swenson, Carter’s great aunt. “Maybe one of Mormonism’s roles in the world, beside producing FBI agents, is to export artist to the world the way the Soviet Union used to,” Carter suggests. The notion troubles me immensely, but with Carter I regret that “the field of Mormon arts has been left to hard-working but only semi-talented artist [or, in my case, critics] like me.” I’m optimistic that the situation will improve—in fact, I’ve seen a lot of work lately that gives me great hope—but I still think we have miles and miles to go.
The good news is that we still have Stephen Carter. And that means we’ll likely have more books like What of the Night? in the future.